Authun and the Bear, Part Four

In which our Intrepid Hero goes home

Having received King Sweyn’s blessing and money for his pilgrimage to Rome, Authun set off. Not much is known of Authun’s stay in Rome, but he presumably did many pilgrim things. Like attending Mass held by the Pope. Confessing his sins and receiving absolution. Praying. Things like that. Good, holy things.

Anyway.

On his return to Denmark, he was sadly struck by some nasty disease, which withered him into skin and bones and whittled the money bestowed by Sweyn into nothing.

He was forced to resort to begging and stealing in order to get food as he continued to struggle on his way back to Denmark. Gradually his hair began to fall out until he was completely bald and appeared terribly gaunt and wretched.By the time he eventually reached Denmark, he was an unrecognisable skeleton of his former self.

It was Easter-tide when he found the royal court.

He hesitated, unwilling to show his face in public. He lingered under the shadow of the church where Sweyn’s Easter Masses were being celebrated. Authun hoped that eventually he would meet the king there, but the rich clothes of Sweyn and his courtiers made him even more unwilling to greet Sweyn. Authun joined those other pilgrims who had yet to cast aside their pilgrims’ staffs and wallets outside the court’s banqueting hall, where food was provided, as was the custom, especially during Holy Week.

One evening during that week, Authun tried to meet Sweyn as he went to Evensong. Although it had been difficult before, he found it even more so now, as the king was accompanied by drunken courtiers.

Evensong had been particularly beautifully sung, Sweyn thought, not that he knew all that much about music. The evenings were beginning to lighten again and it was not quite dark as he walked back to the hall with his courtiers. They were somewhat boisterous now, although they had managed to show sufficient piety and sobriety during the service. They were walking ahead of him, clearly eager to get back to the mead which the serving girls would be setting out in the banqueting hall for them.

A movement in the shadows caught Sweyn’s eye; the light was just enough for him to make out the shape of a man. The courtiers had by now disappeared into the hall, and Sweyn called out: “Come forward, you who wants to meet me; I imagine that is your wish, you who lurk in the shadows.”

The man hesitated, then stepped forward and fell at Sweyn’s feet. Sweyn did not recognise, as well he might not, so great were the changes in Authun’s appearance.

“Lord,” he uttered, but got no further as recognition dawned on Sweyn.

“Authun?! Get up!” Sweyn declared delightedly, although aghast at Authun’s skeletal state. He pulled the prostrate man to his feet and grasped his hand. “Welcome, my friend, welcome! Goodness, you have greatly changed since I last saw you!”

He took Authun by the arm and led him into the banqueting hall. The courtiers, upon seeing the king’s companion, laughed at the sight of Sweyn with a skeleton. But Sweyn quelled the laughter with a look of thunder and said, “You need not laugh at him: his soul is far better provided for than any of yours!”

He turned to a serving-girl and asked that a bath for Authun be readied, and some of his own clothes be found for Authun to wear. Such was done and Authun returned to the banquet feeling considerably better than he had done in a long while and considerably better dressed. Sweyn had a space made for him beside himself and treated Authun as a much-respected guest.

In the weeks after Easter, Authun recovered much of the weight which he had lost, and his hair began to grow again. By Ascension he was fully recovered.

King Sweyn asked Authun to remain indefinitely at his court, offering him wealth and status. “I would make you my cup-bearer and you would be treated with high honour,” he promised.

But Authun, with some regret, said, “May God reward you, lord, for all the honour which you would place upon me, but it is in my mind to travel back to Iceland.”

This confused Sweyn. Why would anyone wish to return to the cold rock in the Northern seas when they could receive honour and riches in the Danish court?

“To me, this is a strange choice,” he said, bemused.

Authun began to explain. “It is thus, lord: I am not unsure of the great honour which I have here, but while I would reside in some splendour and want nothing, my mother treads a beggar’s path in Iceland because the money which I provided for her before I left Iceland over three years ago will now be finished.” It was simply spoken, and, to Sweyn’s ears, there was a strong ring of sincerity. He was impressed.

“That is well said,” he replied, “and as a man ought. May you be a man of good fortune, for such is the only reason which I could hear without displeasure for you to leave me. Stay with me now until a ship can be found which is ready to travel.”

To this offer, Authun assented and less than a month later, King Sweyn accompanied Authun to the shore where the quay was, where merchants were preparing their ships for the summer’s trading. There were ships destined for many different lands: to the eastern trading routes in the Baltic, to Saxony, Sweden or Norway. The two men walked along the quay-side, looking at the busy hurrying to and fro of the merchants and workers. They came before a beautiful ship, with a carefully carved figurehead of a serpent. It was being prepared for travel northwards.

“How do you like this ship, Authun?” Sweyn asked, as Authun stared at the vessel.

“It’s beautiful, lord,” was all that Authun could manage as a response.

“Then, it is yours,” the king said. “I want to give you this ship as a reward for the bear.”

Authun mustered all the graciousness at his command in order to thank the king for the gift of the ship.

Before Authun left, when the ship was ready some few days later, Sweyn said to the Icelander: “Although you now want to travel away from me, I will not hinder you, despite my express wish to honour you greatly in my court. I have heard that it is difficult to find harbour in your land’s coast, and there are many places of open coast which are dangerous to ships. No, should you happen to become wrecked and lose the ship and its cargo, then you would have little to show that you have met King Sweyn and given him a great treasure. Therefore, I give to you this silver.” Sweyn handed to Authun his own leather purse full of silver coins. “This will ensure that you will not be entirely without money, even if you become ship-wrecked, as long as you keep a-hold of this purse. Although, it may still happen that you lose this money; you would still have nothing to show that you have met King Sweyn and would have benefitted little from giving him a great treasure,” he added musingly. He thought for a moment and then drew from his arm one of the gold rings which he habitually wore and proffered it to Authun. “Take this. Then if it should turn out so badly that you are ship-wrecked and lose the silver as well, then you would not be entirely without money when you come to land, because many men have gold on them in ship-wrecks and from this it can be seen that you have met King Sweyn, as long as you hold onto this arm-ring. And this I want to advise you: do not give this ring to anyone, unless you think that you have an exceedingly great kindness to reward a most noble man. Give them then this ring, because it is fitting for a noble man to receive. And now: farewell!”

Sweyn stepped back as Authun embarked the ship. He stood by the figure-head as the men began to row and lifted his hand in farewell to the Danish king.

The ship was turned in the direction of Norway as they left the harbour. Authun thought to take the cargo to Norway and trade there, in the south of the country. They came in to land in the region where King Harald was in residence.

Authun remembered his promise from several years before. When the cargo had been unloaded, he left his merchant captain in charge of bartering the goods while he went to pay his respects to the king.

King Harald’s court was readying itself for the mid-summer celebrations. Harald himself was trying to plan his next sortie against Denmark. The protracted war was wearying him and he hoped that the coming offensive would provide a more definitive result. With any luck, it would leave him holding Denmark as well as Norway. He glanced up from his discussion with his captain as a kerfuffle broke out in the hall’s doorway.

The king’s guards were disinclined to allow this random Icelandic stranger into the hall, even with the story he told of a promise to the king. The man bore the King of Denmark’s ring on his arm and leather purse on his belt. Clearly he was a spy or assassin, sent by Sweyn to kill Harald.

Harald’s memory served him well, and he recognised the man trying to enter his hall.

“Let him enter!” boomed across the hall to the guards. The entire hall fell silent. The serving-girls ceased their preparations. Everyone turned to the doorway. The guards stepped aside and Authun walked confidently in. He crossed the floor, the men and girls parting to allow him through to the king.

“Lord, I return as I promised,” he began, greeting Harald more warmly than he had done previously.

“So I see,” replied Harald. “Sit, and drink with us.” He gestured to a serving-girl to bring ale for Authun. A space appeared on the bench beside Harald and Authun took it.

“Now, tell me! In what way did King Sweyn reward you for the bear?”

Authun replied, “In this way, lord: he received it from me.”

“I would have done likewise,” muttered Harald. “Did he reward you yet further?”

“Yes, lord,” Authun answered. “He supplied me with silver to go south.”

“King Sweyn gives men money to go south on a pilgrimage or for other reasons even though they do not all present him with valuable gifts. What else was there?” Harald demanded.

“He invited me,” Authun said, “to become his cup-bearer and to have great honour placed on me.”

“That was well said,” Harald approved, “but he would have rewarded you with yet more.”

“He did thus,” Authun agreed. “He gave me a merchant-ship with a full cargo that hither is best invested in Norway.”

“Very generous,” Harald said, unimpressed, “but I would have done likewise. Did he reward you yet more?”

“Yes, lord,” Authun replied. “He gave me this leather purse filled with silver, so that I should not be penniless if I keep hold of it, even if my ship be wrecked on Iceland’s coast.”

“Most excellently done. I might not have done that,” Harald admitted. “I would have felt free of my obligation by giving you the ship. Did he reward you yet more?”

“Indeed so, lord,” Authun said. He indicated the gold arm-ring which he wore. “He rewarded me yet further by giving me this ring that I wear on my arm. He said that it might happen that I might lose all the silver, but that I would not be penniless if I had the ring. He bade me not to part with it unless I had some noble man’s great kindness to reward, to whom I wanted to give it. And now I have met just that man, lord, for you had the chance to take both the bear and my life from me, but you let me travel in peace where others could not.” Authun pulled the ring from his arm and held it out to King Harald.

Harald received the ring graciously and gave Authun fine gifts in return before Authun went back to his ship for the journey to Iceland.

And, no doubt, he lived the rest of his life dining out on the story of his travels and the kings he had met.

Authun and the Bear, Part One

In Which Our Intrepid Hero Has an Idea

Once upon a time (for all good stories begin then), there lived a man. His name was Authun, and he lived in the Western Fjords of Iceland. Although this isn’t a fairy tale, it begins much like one. Authun was a poor farmer’s son, and his family was just his mother. Authun was probably much like any other typical Norseman. He had fair hair, pale skin and blue eyes and was probably over five and half feet, which was about average back then.

Fortunately, though, our hero and his mother have a good friend, a farmer named Thorstein, who gave Authun a job on his farm. A steady job, but Authun dreamed of other things. Of going on the ships which left every year for lands over the seas. But he was poor, and couldn’t afford to leave his mother.

Most importantly, though, Thorstein had a friend in Norway. This friend, called Thorir, owned a fine ship, which he used to travel across the Northern seas.

Thorstein, Thorir and Authun struck a deal. Let’s say that Authun is about twenty years old and we’re approximately in the year 1054. This seems reasonable, yes?

Anyway, back to the deal. Authun worked for Thorstein for a winter, and in exchange, he would get to join Thorir’s crew on the return to Norway.

And so that’s what happened.

The following spring, Authun collected all the money he had, put enough for hopefully three years aside for his mother, and got on the ship. And so they sailed away to Norway.

They spent a lot of the summer there. Traders and merchants from the south came north, bringing news and gossip too. Authun heard tell of a Jarl in somewhere called Northumbria wanting fighting men. Some man called Macbeth had killed the Jarl’s nephew.

Before the summer reached its end, Thorir and his crew, Authun included, set off again, across the seas. They went westwards again, although not to Iceland. This time they went further, to the land only relatively recently discovered. They went to Greenland.

Since they arrived so late in the year, they stayed the winter there. It was a harsher winter than any Authun had known in Iceland. Authun wondered why it was called Greenland. It wasn’t very green – quite white, in fact – and it looked rocky. Not easy farming land. But so it was. Norsemen had begun settling there just over fifty years previously, encouraged by Eirik the Red.

Not much is known of the visit to Greenland, except that in the following spring, Authun made an interesting purchase.

For the sum total of all of the possessions which he owned after the summer spent working on Thorir’s farm, Authun gained an ice-bear.

When asked why he wanted the bear, Authun simply shrugged and said, “I shall give it to King Sweyn.”

At which all the others wondered. King Sweyn was the King of Denmark. He was King Harald of Norway’s best frenemy. And to get to Denmark, Authun would have to first go to Norway. And try to get the bear, which was essentially a really valuable treasure, through to a hostile land.  

In the Eleventh Century North Sea

For a change, I thought I’d share with you a Norse story. But first, some context is needed because I’m going to make the assumption your knowledge of Scandinavian history is sketchy at best. My apologies if this is incorrect.

So, the story is an English translation of an Old Norse short story. It’s about an Icelander and a polar bear (or “ice bear” in the literal translation). The translation, and thus any embellishments, is mine. I take full responsibility for any mistranslation.

But before the story begins, the first part of which I shall post in a day or two, the historical context. For it is a “true story”, honest. It’s true in the sense that it might have happened; that the main character, Authun, might have lived; and that the two Kings certainly did, and at the same time. It’s not uncommon for reality to be a bit blurred in the “historical” sagas and for kings to be living when they shouldn’t.

The main characters are:

Authun – a poor Icelander

King Harald Hardrada – King of Norway

King Sweyn Estridsen – King of Denmark

The events take place somewhere in the 1050s. Authun’s background is, perhaps, unnecessary, since he seems to be in the role of ‘local boy made good’.

The two kings, though, are more fun. They have an interesting history.

I shall start with Harald Hardrada. You may know of him. He died in 1066, at Stamford Bridge, defeated by Harold Godwineson, two weeks before Harold was defeated at Hastings. Harald Hardrada (or “Hard-Ruler”) was the much younger half-brother of a previous King of Norway, Olafr, who became the Norwegian King-Saint after being killed in battle in 1030 (and Norway passing into the hands of Knut the Great of Denmark).

Now, really, Harald shouldn’t have been become King of Norway. Not only did Knut the Great have sons, but so too did St Olafr. Knut’s son Svein and his mother were unpopular regents of Norway, so the throne passed to Magnus, Olafr’s son. After Olafr’s death, you see, Harald had gone abroad. To Byzantium. Where he became quite rich, fighting in the Varangian Guard (the Byzantine Emperor’s personal bodyguard, largely made up of Norsemen), and plundering the empire when emperors died. Of which three did during his sojourn in the south.

While he’s busy getting rich there, Sweyn’s story. Through his mother Estrid, he was the nephew of Knut the Great. Apparently he had a limp, but this didn’t stop him from becoming a decent military leader. However, Knut’s son Harthaknut was King of Denmark after Knut’s death. He didn’t last long, and then Magnus (remember him?) managed to wrench Denmark into his control. Compensation for the death of his father, you see. Sweyn bided his time and rose to the rank of Jarl (Earl) under Magnus.

Anyway, having become quite rich, Harald returned to Scandinavia in the 1040s. Magnus had, by now, also become King of Denmark. After making a pact with Sweyn Estridsen and harrying the coast of Norway, they persuaded Magnus to split Norway with Harald. And to agree to let Sweyn have Denmark when he was done with it.

Fortunately for the pair of them, Magnus died in 1047. Somehow. The jury’s still out on precisely how, since reports vary from illness to falling overboard and drowning to falling off a horse.

But the end result is that Norway has Harald and Denmark has Sweyn. You’d think this was the end of this tale, wouldn’t you? Except it’s not. Of course it’s not. Otherwise I wouldn’t be telling all this, since Authun’s story is a decade later.

Because Harald decided that he wasn’t happy being just King of Norway. He wanted Denmark as well. In fact, as is seen in 1066, he wanted England too. He wanted what Knut had. A North Sea Empire. Because, you know, being King of one country, and having all that lovely Byzantine treasure, just isn’t enough for one man.

So the really important fact that you’ll need to remember while reading about Authun and his bear in a few days’ time is this. Denmark and Norway are at war. Harald and Sweyn are no longer friends.

But don’t worry. All of this short history will be there for your referencing convenience. Or, you know, Wikipedia.